Kill Your Darlings

December 21, 2013
Daniel Radcliffe in 'Kill Your Darlings' 2013
Daniel Radcliffe in 'Kill Your Darlings' 2013

Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr. The first three were among the most famous writers of their generation, the last worked for 47 years as a news editor for United Press International. Yet in the formative years of the Beat Generation, Lucien Carr was the hippest of the hip.

This brief, glittering career as a trendsetter came to a halt in 1944 when the 19-year-old Carr was convicted of the murder of David Kammerer, a former teacher and mentor. The story told to the court was that Kammerer was a homosexual predator whom Carr killed in self-defence. Although the details of the crime should have cast doubt on this account, Carr would escape with the lightest of sentences, serving a gaol term of only two years.
It was a time when being homosexual was apparently more shocking than being a murderer.

That crime, which is the subject of John Krokidas’s debut feature, Kill Your Darlings, was a watershed event in the lives of the young writers. Burroughs and Kerouac were detained as material witnesses, and Ginsberg would be expelled from Columbia University. It was an intrusion of reality into the drug-fuelled literary fantasy of a “New Vision”.

At the end of his prison sentence Carr got a job at UPI as a copy boy, and would remain there for the rest of his working life. Burroughs would break away from his family and become more deeply addicted to drugs, pursuing his program of “the derangement of the senses”. Kerouac went travelling with his friend, Neal Cassady, gathering those experiences that would become the Beat Bible, On the Road (1957).

In the years that followed, Ginsberg would burrow deeply into the Bohemian world, becoming not only a celebrated poet but an active spokesman on gay liberation, Buddhism and a host of other causes. This is a far cry from the teenage Ginsberg we meet in this film: a raw recruit to the underground lifestyle, fired up by the desire to start a literary revolution. Fans of the Harry Potter movies may take a little time adjusting to the idea of Daniel Radcliffe as a pill-popping, gay neophyte, but he throws himself wholeheartedly into the role.

Dane DeHaan is also good as Carr – an affected but charismatic outsider who relishes the avant-garde idea of shocking the bourgeoisie but is incapable of writing his own college essays. Ben Foster provides a suitably low-key rendition of Burroughs – a character who was never truly young; while Jack Huston, who must be in danger of cinematic overexposure this year, is the latest incarnation of Kerouac.

The murder is introduced immediately, ensuring there is mystery but no suspense. The film is really a character study that examines the tensions, passions and rivalries within a small group of young men. Although we look more closely at Ginsberg’s family life, particularly his relationship with his mentally ill mother, the key to the story is Krokidas’s unflattering portrait of Carr. He is presented as a manipulative narcissist who trades on his charms to bend others to his will. It all goes wrong with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose infatuation impinges on Carr’s ability to remain the detached object of desire.

Despite his camp mannerisms, Carr’s sexuality is ambiguous, although this wasn’t unusual among the Beats. Burroughs was bisexual and twice married, while the young Ginsberg had girlfriends as well as boyfriends. Even the macho Neal Cassady was prone to a bit of casual buggery. Kerouac was the most resistant, but willing to dabble.

Kill Your Darlings is a rites-of-passage tale, that shows an immature Ginsberg coming to terms with his sexual preferences and finding his voice as a poet. Lucien Carr plays an important role in both these discoveries, but he is the ‘darling’ that has to be killed if Ginsberg is to escape his baleful influence. Carr’s own literal killing of Kammerer, and the prison term that followed, would have a sobering effect on his personality. We don’t see this in the film, which begins and ends with Carr awaiting trial.

The usual problem with movies about writers is that everyone seems to talk in quotation marks, but Krokidas manages to sidestep this lazy habit. Neither does he portray his characters as incipient geniuses way ahead of their time. On the contrary, they come across a bunch of adolescents – pretentious, naïve and ultimately out of their depth. The snippets of poetry and prose we hear are far from rivetting, unless you’re as high as the authors.

It’s tempting to say they never got much better.
On the Road is the unchallenged masterpiece of Beat writing, but it floats upon an ocean of self-conscious literary drivel. Ginsberg’s poems are often no more than raves; while Burroughs’s novels, with the exception of that taut, quasi-memoir, Junky (1953), read like bad footnotes to Finnegan’s Wake. They are books to be perused in your twenties. Nowadays I feel the time I devoted to Burroughs could have been spent more profitably on Dickens or Hardy – or Philip K. Dick!

Kill Your Darlings is ultimately not much of a story. It is a wellmade film of limited ambition that sheds a dim light on a part of American literary history that has been more mythologised than analysed. It highlights the dangers, for both readers and writers, of admiration without understanding.

Kill Your Darlings
USA, rated MA15+
103 mins
Directed by John Krokidas; written by Austin Bunn & John Krokidas; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21 December, 2013.